A Camel’s life

Fancy a Camel? This ARTF version from Hanger 9 is a fine flyer

Of all the terrible innovations with which the Great War ushered in the age of mechanised conflict, perhaps the most remarkable were the fighting machines that allowed the cavalry to take to the air. They brought with them a new concept – air power – to describe the struggle for technical and numerical advantage in this new arena. First, Germany’s E1 Eindekker held sway over the Western Front, only to be displaced by Britain’s Sopwith Pup and de Havilland 2. When, in the late summer of 1916, these aircraft were bested in turn by Germany’s Albatross and Halberstaadt fighters, Britain’s next ripostes were still on the drawing board: the RAE was readying the SE5, and Bristol was at work on the F2a. At Sopwith’s meanwhile, Tom Sopwith, Fred Sigrist and Harry Hawker – the same Sopwith and Sigrist who’d later design the Hurricane in the factory to which Hawker would give his name – were designing something called the F1.

The F1 was utterly conventional in its construction, with a wooden box-girder, wire-braced fuselage that was fabric covered except for the cockpit sides, which were ply skinned, and the engine bay, which had aluminium cowls. The wings, were also wood and fabric, the first prototype having a one-piece top wing with four short ailerons that only extended from tips to the interplane struts. Although both main planes had the same 2° angle of incidence, the upper wing had no dihedral while the lower wing was raked upwards at 5.5, giving the aircraft its distinctive ‘lowered brow and hunched shoulders’ appearance – an appearance backed by a considerable punch. Housed in a forward-sloping enclosure above and behind the 110hp Clerget engine were two .303 Vickers machine guns – the first time that this arrangement had been used on a British fighter – that were fed by two 500-round ammunition belts, and which fired through the arc of the prop’.

First flown in late 1916 by Harry Hawker, the F1’s development was continued in early 1917 by three more prototypes. The first, the F1/1 Taper Wing, had mainplanes whose chord reduced from 5ft at the centre-section to 3ft at the tip, and were braced by single, deep-chord interplane struts rather than the paired struts of the F1. The idea was to improve performance by reducing drag, but despite its 130hp Clerget engine, the F1/1 offered only a limited gain in top speed at the price of a higher landing speed. The only aspects of its design that were carried forward to the F1/2, then, were an aperture in the upper wing for upward vision, and a flat-topped gun fairing that replaced the sloping enclosure. In addition, the F1/2 acquired a small screen in front of cockpit.

It was F1/3, however, which became the model for production aircraft. Like the original F1, it had a one-piece upper wing and short ailerons, and appears to have been the first of the breed to be given the name ‘Camel’. Although contemporary accounts suggest that the use of this nickname, which is popularly supposed to refer to the hump of the gun enclosure, soon became widespread, its was never officially adopted. So even when Sopwith’s famous fighter went into service in June 1917 – with a three-piece top wing, by the way – it was unimaginatively known as either the F1, or the 2F1, the serial for the 315 aircraft built for the RNAS.

Besides using the 150hp BR1 engine – W O Bentley’s version of the Clerget, the 2F1s, or ‘Ships Camels’, differed from the F1 in that the fuselage was built in two parts joined just aft of the lower mainplane’s trailing edge, and could be disassembled for easier stowage on board ship. The 2F1 also had a shorter wingspan, a narrower track undercarriage, a shade less dihedral, and different armament. A single Vickers gun was mounted in front of the cockpit, and a Lewis gun on the centre spar of the top wing, fixed to fire upward – apparently as an anti-airship measure. Needless to say, the Navy, odd folk that they are, inflicted all sorts of cruelty on their Camels, launching them from the tops of gun turrets and lighters towed behind ships, and dropping them from beneath airships.

Though the Camel’s operational lifespan was short, it was also perfectly timed, lasting just long enough to help maintain the balance of air power in the Allies favour until the Armistice in November 1918. After the War, the Camel served briefly in the US, Poland, and even with the White Russian forces in post-revolution Russia, but it soon became clear that Sopwith’s fierce little beast was growing long in the tooth. By early 1920, Britain’s remaining Camel units had traded in their aircraft for Sopwith Snipes. There was little use for aircraft of such uncompromising in the civilian world, and those that hadn’t already been destroyed were decommissioned wholesale so that, of the 5734 Camels known to have been built, only a handful have survived to the present day.
  • Read Dave’s account of what it was actually like to fly the Camel in the June 2009 issue of RCM&E. 
  • Click the link below for Pete Lowe’s review of the Hanger 9 Camel.  

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